BG 233: Where Science and Compassion Meet

Episode Description:

We’re joined this week by Dr. Kelly McGonigal, to discuss her work at Stanford University, where she is teaching compassion-based practices from the Buddhist tradition, taught in a way that pulls from scientific research and appeals to a secular sensibility.

As part of her work with CCARE she shares some of her background with Stanford as well as her long-standing Buddhist practice, which pulls from both the Zen and Tibetan traditions. We close the discussion by exploring some of the difficulties with teaching meditation in a secular context, as well as some of the benefits that come through framing the teachings in scientific and psychological terms.

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Vincent: Hello Buddhist Geeks, this is Vincent Horn and I’m joined today with a special guest, Kelly: McGonigal. Kelly:, thank you again for taking the time to chat with the Buddhist Geeks; we really appreciate it.

Kelly:: Thank you for having me here.

Vincent: Yeah. It’s great to have you here and it’s cool because I got to meet you just a few weeks ago actually at the Buddhist Geeks Conference. It was the first time I met you and it just seemed so obvious after seeing your presentation there that it would be good to have you on the show.

Kelly:: [Laughs] I’m definitely a Buddhist Geek.

Vincent: You definitely are. I was a little bit surprised I’ll be honest because I though your background was mostly going to be in the kind of mindfulness and science side. But it turned out in watching your presentation that you have a really deep and interesting Buddhist background, which we’ll get into in as well. And I was just really impressed by your presentation.

Kelly:: Thank you.

Vincent: Yeah. So I’ll just say a little bit for those that aren’t familiar with your work or haven’t heard your name before. You are a PhD in Health Psychology and you also lecture, you do instruction, you do all kinds of interesting stuff through Stanford University, which is a prestigious of course university. And it’s amazing to me actually when I think about it how many of these really top-notch universities are getting interested and having research programs on some of these topics.

Kelly:: Yes, and you know when I first arrived at Stanford that was not the case. And I was definitely a little bit ridiculed in the psychology department for my interesting in meditation and Buddhist research. I still remember at one lab meeting we were talking about a brain imaging study that we were going to do looking at different approaches to emotion regulation. And I said, “Guys there’s this other thing you can do with difficult unpleasant emotions,” and I was trying to explain what it would be like to have a sort of mindful curious acceptance of an emotional experience. And one of the neuroscientist said, “Ah you’re talking about that Buddhist stuff.” Things have definitely changed. That laboratory now actually has major research funding specifically to study the benefits of meditation.

Vincent: When was this?

Kelly:: 1999.

Vincent: Wow. So in the last like 12 or 13 years.

Kelly:: Yeah.

Vincent: So has there been like a major sea change from your perspective in the interest there, because it seems like from the outside, like all of the sudden that stuff just blew up?

Kelly:: It did feel that way. I know that we had a particular post doc, Philippe Goldin, who is now one of the leading researchers in the field. He showed up to that laboratory, the Stanford Psychophysiology Laboratory in maybe 2002 or 2003, I’m not really sure. And he brought with him his experience as a Tibetan translator and as a mindfulness teacher. And he ended up creating that research program within the psychology department that then gave birth to a lot of other research projects and collaborations with other laboratories, winding up with a few years ago the reaction of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, which is one of the programs that I worked with at Stanford. And that’s interdisciplinary. It’s not just multiple researchers in the psychology department. But it’s economists and philosophers and traditional scholars and people who work in neuro-economics. All sorts of different researchers who are trying to investigate the basis of compassion and cooperation and empathy, and the part that I’m involved in is figuring out how do we best cultivate those trait or those states of mind.

Vincent: Like from the inside out kind of approach. Interesting. Okay. Cool. That’s really fascinating. And backtracking just a little bit because I do want to talk just a little bit more about your involvement with CCARE. I know that’s the shortened version of the Center for Compassion…

Kelly:: I know. It’s really the only one I can be guaranteed not to mess up, when I try to get all the words right.

Vincent: Exactly. Tell me a little bit about your background and history with Zen. During your presentation, you mentioned and brought in your experience of sitting at a zendo. And I was interested and curious in your experience with that, and is that something that predates your work at Stanford?

Kelly:: It actually coincides pretty much exactly.

Vincent: Interesting.

Kelly:: I have a theory that people come to meditation, or to Buddhism, for one of two reasons. They are either suffering and they just want to have some relief from that suffering or they feel like something is kind of missing and they’ve heard that you can really be happy or blissful and they’re sort of searching for some sort of supernatural and magical experiences. And I was definitely in the former category.

I was actually really unhappy when I arrived at Stanford for my graduate work. And the environment pushed me further in that direction. Very anxious, very overwhelmed, feeling very socially isolated having come from a large social network on the East Coast and arriving at this campus that really was not supporting social connection in the way I was used to living in an urban environment and being plopped here in what they called the farm.

And so in the middle of all this suffering and angst and unhappiness I have no idea why but I picked up Shunryu Suzuki’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. And I think I probably associated Zen with this idea of being able to handle difficult things with a kind of calm. Because I don’t know why I picked up that book but I remember it was a first month or two being at Stanford and I remember reading it on a bench and having absolutely no idea what he was talking about. And this insight that there was a way of seeing the world or way of understanding my experience that was fundamentally different than I was thinking. I just had this kind of aha moment or some sort of intuition that if I came to think in this way that this author, that this teacher writing that it actually would help relieve my suffering. And that was the sort of impetus I needed to pursue a little bit more training in this area.

So I was doing my zazen as described on the book on my own and looking for local teachers. And I found in the bookstore a book by Cheri Huber who is an American Zen teacher who just happened to have a monastery very close to Stanford campus as well as a Zen center. And so I started taking trainings and retreats and sitting sessions with her and her trained facilitators and monks. It was exactly what I needed. There was something about the simplicity of the practice that you just sit down. You stare at the wall. You watch the mind and become a kind of… the way that I come to think of it is you become a real compassion guide to the mind while being a witness to it. And this idea of getting some insight and freedom into how the mind was creating suffering through what was such a simple practice. I was immediately hooked into it. And think of that practice as being life saving.

Vincent: Beautiful. I’m wondering how has your relationship to that practice changed over these several years, because you’ve been doing it for a while now?

Kelly:: Well one thing I should say that is unusual Cheri Huber sangha focuses more on compassion and compassion practices than is typical in the Zen community, a more explicit focus on it. So the teachings that this practice of sitting down with our own mind is to support us in going out into the world for service and for compassionate action and then the name of the sangha is moving compassion. So I was very drawn to that and it also motivated me to get some training in Tibetan mind practices and some of the Tibetan practices of compassion, which is how I ended up teaching for Stanford CCARE. So part of how my experience with that evolved was really coming to have a sense of that was true that the ability to absorb myself and find this place of center was critical for my ability to work with people who are suffering.

And at this time I began to teach stress management and pain relief and yoga and other practices to people who had chronic pain, anxiety and depression and even just working with undergraduates at Stanford who really are suffering the prevalence of eating disorders and depression and anxiety and alcoholism is pretty high, higher than most people would expect. And I found that in all these opportunities I had to work with people who are suffering it was my practice of sitting down and staring at the wall and being with my breath that was allowing me to be of any use to these people. And so I feel like that’s sort of how I view my practice now and it’s that anchor for myself, for my own suffering and also it is the thing that allows me to be of service.

Vincent: And then of course part of the way that you’re being of service through your professional work with CCARE. Let’s tie everything together because I’m sure that’s important to you, to bring these things together in your actual life. Tell me a little bit more about the work you’re doing with CCARE. What it’s about? Any projects that are going on that might be interesting to the Buddhist Geeks. Just anything you want to share on that.

Kelly:: There are two core type of project happening at CCARE. One is on the research side, the basic research side where researchers are for example shining lasers into the brains of mice to see if they can create a more compassionate or pro-social behavior by activating or deactivating certain regions of the brain. So I’m not involved in that side although they got a really interesting research projects going on. I was first brought into CCARE when they were developing what would be common nine-week course in compassion cultivation that is very similar to mindfulness based stress reduction in format and intention but using the compassion practices rather than mindfulness or the stabilizing the mind practices that are taught in MBSR.

The senior scholar who was in charge of this project is Thupten Jinpa who is the senior translator for the Dalai Lama. And the researcher I mentioned earlier Philippe Goldin brought me in knowing I was someone who did the practices, was teaching these practices, and also well versed in the psychology and the science. And the aim of this compassion cultivation program is to full cultivate what we know from psychology and neuroscience about how to cultivate these states and also the limits of them. You know why it’s so difficult to feel compassion for an enemy or why it is that our compassion seems to collapse in the face of large scale suffering.

So we use the insight from psychology and neuroscience to create a context to teach these traditional practices. And so that was a couple of years ago. We spent some time working with Jinpa developing the program and then I’ve been teaching it ever since. So we’re gearing up now to begin a 2-year teacher training program so that others can become trained to teach this program. So that’s one of actually the major projects I’m working on now is starting to develop the curriculum for teacher training.

Vincent: Nice. And is it similar to Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction in that it’s designed for a particular population like a sort of secular population?

Kelly:: Well initially we weren’t sure. We started out trying to design it as being very secular, which is important. So like MBSR we were trying not to ask people to leave anything. We were trying to keep certain Buddhist terms that might push buttons among people who have not fully embraced Buddhist philosophy to keep it as secular as possible and as grounded in psychology as possible like MBSR does. And at the same time, we wanted to start offering the program to people who were psychologically healthy and we thought might be well prepared for these practices.

Now over the years of teaching this we’ve opened up the program to different populations. And in my experience actually it’s pretty interesting. In many cases it’s the people who are suffering or has suffered the most in the past who seemed to really be able to embrace these practices. And in my cases it’s the people who come in testing psychologically healthy and normal who either are most resistant to the practices or end being triggered by the practices in a challenging way. And so I started to rethink what is the pre-requisite for engaging with these practices. Although, we have found that people who have, who’ve done MBSR or some sort of mindfulness training it’s easier for them, which makes sense.

Vincent: Yeah, that does make sense. And you know one of the topics that we explore a lot on Buddhist Geeks or are starting to explore more–and it’s connected to what we’re talking about the sort of blowing up of interest in meditation in the secular context–is this whole relationship between what we might call them contemplative traditions. Established contemplative traditions like Buddhism, like the centering prayer movement in the Christian tradition. And there’s so many I can’t name them all. But there are these established and long standing contemplative tradition that are very much embedded in religious terminology and they have religious history and figures and philosophy and it’s like a whole big thing.

And then there are these sort of secular trainings. Mindfulness of course is kind of the big buzz word right now. Maybe it’s not just buzz, maybe it’s actually a long standing thing. But there’s one conversation and it happened at the Buddhist Geeks Conference where we were talking about this idea of McMindfulness. That is, presenting secular teachings in a way that from a more deep contemplative perspective you’d go “Oh that’s sort of shallow. That’s not really the whole thing. It’s just a little tiny piece of it.”

And so there’s this sort of tension that often gets felt for the people in the contemplative traditions who are really in love with the depth of the practices and philosophy and all that. I guess they get concerned, and I can relate to this, about watering it down, or the full richness of it kind of getting left behind in this attempt to make it accessible. So I wanted to throw that out there because I’m sure that you’re aware of this. And I wanted to hear kind of your perspective since you really are standing with a foot in both worlds.

Kelly:: Yeah, I could talk for a long time about this so you just interrupt me when you want to.

Vincent: Okay.

Kelly:: There’s so many different ways that I see some value having this conversation. I’m not too worried that we are watering things down and giving it to people as an entry-level practice. Where I feel some concern is that we give people practices and we say, “Good luck to you.” Do them and see what happens. And then we’re maybe off to the next project or maybe someone picked up a book or picked up an audio-guided practice or heard something online, read something online. And in my experience where I’ve received the most benefits from these traditions is in conversations with a teacher. And doing the practices. But it’s hard for me to think about the practices outside of the context of some sort of relationship with people who can give you guidance.

And so when I think of the dangers of a McMindfulness movement it’s not so much the watering down of the practices, but that even if people are doing what some might think of as watered down practices like sitting down and being with the breath, things are going to come up that require kind of guidance or kind of reflection back.

When I first started teaching some of these so called “watered down practices” under the guise of stress management, what I found I that people are able to turn almost anything against themselves including something as simple as breath focus meditation, something that’s supposed to be calming or helpful or relaxing. People will turn it into a way of beating themselves up, a way of trying to control the mind, a competition, an escape from reality. I think the most important thing that we should make sure is not getting lost in the transmission of these things to the masses is that people need a guide for doing these practices or someone to talk to who can offer support.

The second concern that I have in terms of the secularization is that in the CCARE program we are not watering down the practices. People are doing Tonglen, which can be a very challenging practice, the practice of giving and taking, taking in people’s suffering and giving back compassion. And other practices that are very powerful. And even though we have made the program secular in the core content, I’m finding that people are coming back and reporting experiences that I only know how to respond to with Buddhist ideas. People coming in who are reporting what is essentially the dissolving of the self, the sense, that rigid sense of the self, the personality, the ego. People are spontaneously experiencing this when they do the practices and they aren’t necessarily deeply disturbed by them but they don’t understand what’s happening. And I don’t have the theory or the words from western psychology or a secular field to explain this in way that I find is helpful as how a Buddhist teacher would explain these experiences and what to do with them, how to use them in your practice and other things like that.

The idea that… a lot of people are coming in with certain religious or philosophical beliefs that if you suffer is because something good is going to happen, that good things come from suffering. So many of these ideas that are sort of part of our conditioning or part of our heritage that come up and again I know how to relate to them from Buddhist philosophy point of view. And it’s much more challenging to give people sort of a compassionate way to think about these experiences or these ideas that is not at all tied into Buddhist terminology and philosophy. So that’s what I’m personally struggling with and I’m actually hoping that it’s something that we’re going to talk together, the few of us who are teaching these program who are all teachers of Buddhist ideas in other contexts. How are going to do this in a secular context.

Vincent: That’s really interesting. Do you have any sort of intuition or sense of what course that might take?

Kelly:: So you saw my first sort of footsteps into this at the Buddhist Geeks Conference, when I presented those studies on the default network of the brain and how practice can offer new default. This is the way that I’m trying get at talking about the self in a secular way.

This research is the observation by neuroscientists that the human brain defaults to a certain pattern of activation whenever it doesn’t have a specific focus. And that default pattern is sometimes referred to as the evaluation system. So the brain is deciding what it likes and what it doesn’t like about what’s happening right now. It starts to construct a preferred alternate reality. It starts to do social comparison and other forms of thinking about other people. What do other people think about me? It’s the blah blah blah blah of the monkey mind or whatever you would call the stuff of the mind that creates so much stress and suffering. When this default network research started really coming out about five years ago, I thought “ah ha that’s the stuff that we are attending to in meditation. That’s the source of so much suffering.” Neuroscientists were not thinking of it in that way. So I sort of put that in my back pocket that there’s something about this default network that would be useful in terms of talking about the idea of self and suffering and how the mind create with clinging and aversion and all the things that we would think about from Buddhist philosophy.

And so now the first few studies have started to come out suggesting that meditation practices can provide a new default for the brain. A new default network that is more about attending to your direct experience in the moment than to evaluating it, and that the more we shift how it is we experience life from evaluation to direct experience it’s predicting things like improvement in depression.

So I started to talk about this research. And I also talk about this research at a yoga conference recently and it was really well received by them because that’s exactly what we’re teaching in yoga as well to drop into the body and to attend to what’s happening in this moment. So that’s sort of one way I’m starting to think about how to get at something is not that secular but that there is scientific basis for talking about this and about what it has to do with suffering.

Vincent: Okay. Thank you. Yeah, so in some part it’s kind of bringing in this growing body of meditation research that’s showing certain changes in the physiology of the brain. Of course because most people that live in this culture we speak the langue of science. We grew up learning these things.

And this brings up a really interesting question for me which has to do with, to what degree if we really translate the teaching of Buddhism in some sense or come up with a new language of talking about it that’s more scientific, to what degree is that simply translating it into another cultural language? Are we in this culture, do we have like a kind of invisibility issue, where we don’t see that science and materialism in some ways are kind of religious belief in a lot of was for us. It’s not like everyone is a trained scientist who “believes” in science.

Kelly:: No, actually I’m a 100% with you. Whenever people in the scientific community are ridiculing people who have other faith belief systems I have to point out, “you know what I don’t actually understand climate change science. I don’t actually know how to evaluate that data. But I’m putting my faith in a basic process and a view of the world.” So I’m in completely with you on that.

Vincent: Yeah and it’s just something that comes up again, It’s part of the this complex maybe evolution of Buddhism in the West that of course on Buddhist Geeks we’re so interested in exploring. And it’s cool because you’re sitting in a position, I love the tagline of your website where science meets compassion. To me it sorts of speaks to these sort of two things coming together and they are in some ways different. I mean the amount of compassion training and the literature in the Tibetan tradition, there’s so much richness there that I mean it’s in the western heritage as well like in the humanistic philosophies but it’s not as explicit and there’s not like a training on how do you develop compassion at least that I’ve seen. So it’s really…

Kelly:: In the West. No.

Vincent: In the West, yeah.

Kelly:: Which is why inner compassion cultivation program what we’re teaching people are Tibetan mind training practice.

Vincent: That’s right.

Kelly:: We’re not making stuff up. Although, there are some, some things that we’re bringing in from psychology that turn out to be helpful. And in fact I personally think that brining in some movement, some yoga whether through breathing or gentle movement stretching is probably something that’s going to be very helpful and that’s something the MBSR people figured out too. That embodying some of the stuff we’re doing with the mind is really helpful. But I feel like getting back to that original question about what are we doing when we turn these traditions into scientific language.

Vincent: Yes.

Kelly:: So the Buddhist Geeks Conference, one of the speakers who came after me made a joke, “I don’t need to see brain pictures to know that practice changes my mind or reduces suffering,” something like that, which I totally appreciate. But for people who have not began a practice I can see it when I show them a brain picture, there is a kind of skepticism or resistance that just dissolves. In the face of some of this stuff, people become very curious, certainly the area that I’m in. And so I feel like it’s a way of reaching people that will inspire them to then begin their own empirical investigation of whether these practices are helpful to them.

I’ve always felt that this idea of treating your practice as if you were a scientist is completely embedded in the Buddhist tradition. That we sit down, we investigate what’s happening in our mind and the affect that practice has on it and on our relationship with other people and our ability to function in the world.

And so I actually love being able to talk about treating practice like a personal science project, which also helps disarm people a little bit who are coming in thinking that when we’re teaching these practices it’s from a religious agenda that I want you to become a Buddhist, that I want everyone in the world to think a certain way and do these practices and somehow like that’s the agenda. And so by inviting people to not just learn about the science but treat the practice as if they were scientist in their own life is an aesthetic or a way of presenting these practices that is working well in the community that I’m teaching them.


Kelly McGonigal

Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is the author of Yoga for Pain Relief and the upcoming The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and How to Get More of It (Penguin, Jan 2012). She teaches psychology, yoga, and meditation at Stanford University. Website: